In my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Italy for six weeks. I am aware this by no means makes me an expert in international travel, but it has definitely changed the way I approach my own life here at home. I have come to be appreciative of the smallest things and to purposely look for the absurd details – for the funny, quirky events that will inevitably occur, embracing every and all happenings as one more notch in my wall of experiences. I have learned that nothing goes the way you envisioned it, but that you have the ability to make the best out of it. And there lies the power to live a fulfilling life wherever you are.
With this in mind, these are some of the things I recommend for anyone traveling to Italy:
Take an art class in Florence.
I had the fortune of being taught by a wonderful art professor. Nicoletta, as she preferred to be called, led us through Florence’s most famous sites, and after a short instruction, let us roam freely and sketch. What sticks out to me is her pressing need for us to understand the importance of what we were seeing: every stone, every corner has its own history, every painting a product of time. Rulers had decided the destiny of an entire kingdom in the Palazzo Vecchio. Sculptors had created breathtaking masterpieces with their own hands, their talent, and painstaking patience, and they were all in this city. Here the impossible was done, over and over again, as if it were nothing. We were in the center of something great and sacred, and it was up to us to appreciate every second of it, Nicoletta said. And creating art is a way of appreciating life itself: immortalizing a sunset in watercolors, or coloring the building you just sketched purple because you could.
In those six weeks I filled a sketchbook almost completely, inspired by the beauty that surrounded me (there were a lot of awe-inspiring butts on those sketches).
Now, you don’t have to be an art student like me to appreciate Florence. The city is certainly beautiful in its own merits: a window into a period immortalized by historians everywhere. But it definitely helps to experience Florence while keeping in mind why the city is so famous and beloved.
Make friends with a café owner.
Everyday on my way home from my Italian class, I passed the same little corner café. Even though it overlooked part of the Duomo, it was also safely tucked in from too many prying eyes. As the coldest season Italy had seen in decades gave way to the warm summer days, this little place became my hangout spot. I loved it. It was small, cozy; a no-frills place that did not have a silly gimmick or signature dish. I would sit down at a corner table and study my Italian and people watch for a bit.
The owner, a short enthusiastic older man, eventually recognizes me by sight. He sits me down at the corner table I have come to think of as mine and puts a calzone in front of me. I would like to think he was expecting me. He stays where he is, standing across from me in case a customer comes in and he has to make a quick getaway.
“Good, yes?” he asks in Italian when I take a bite of my calzone. I nod, give him a thumbs up and say, “Si!” He smiles and tells me to enjoy my meal as he takes other customers.
Once he’s done with them, he comes back. By now I have taken out my battered notebook in which I have painstakingly written a paragraph in Italian for my homework assignment. Without prompting, he starts talking in rapid but enunciated Italian, and I am left floundering for a bit before I gather my courage and attempt to make conversation in broken, hesitant half sentences.
“Io sono… Colombiana,” I tell him, trying to convey with sweeping hand gestures where Colombia is and failing miserably.
He smiles at that. “Colombia! Va bene!”
Somehow I learn that his parents are Polish Jews. He came to Italy when he was a teenager and never left, and he’s had the café for over two decades now. He checks my vocabulary and pronunciation and offers his help with my homework. I have to decline, as I am meeting my friend for dinner, but I promise to come back the next day after class.
I leave the café with a spring in my step and feeling very brave for the first time in a while.
Attend an impromptu concert.
I learned on my second night in Florence that my room was right next to a restaurant/bar lounge. I kept trying to sleep (impossible, when you’re still vibrating with the excitement of being in Italy—which, thinking back on it, might have just been jet lag), but the voices and the sounds of clanging glass wafting up through my window did not help very much. My roommate, a very light sleeper, gave me ear plugs to try out, which did not work as I wanted it to: the soft lounge music drowned out by laughter kept coming in, but they sounded muffled and far away – and I could hear my own heartbeat. I felt isolated. I quickly gave it up as a lost cause and used the time to journal, catch up with my homework assignments, or talk to my family in the States.
In the morning, though, a different tale unfolded.
On the rare days I did not have early classes and could stay in for a little longer and enjoy my morning, I heard the sound of a piano. It came from the same place that hosted the loud, laughing people at night. It was beautiful: a nostalgic, softer sound that accompanied me as I made coffee and ate my breakfast. Lots of scales. Some popular pop songs, but mostly compositions I had not heard before that reminded me of Chopin. I tried to lean out the kitchen window a few times, trying to see the pianist who was offering me such beautiful background music to my morning, but I could see nothing.
One morning, when the pianist ended their song and a short pause punctuated the music I had just heard with finality, I sat on the windowsill and started clapping. It was kind of lame in hindsight, the noise reverberating in the cramped space between us, and I felt silly as I stared at the sliver of sky I could see that was not hidden by the roof…but then I heard it:
Laughter. Muffled and gravelly, but unmistakable.
I smiled to myself. The pianist played something else. I sat back down to finish my breakfast. Our morning went on as normal.
These are all absurd stories. Maybe another kind of person would not have paid them any mind. Maybe you, dear reader, are scratching your head wondering what about what I just told you is so special as to write an article about it. If this is the case, I apologize for taking up your valuable time. Thank you for sticking around for so long.
Or maybe you, like me, are that unique kind of breed who sees everything with humor and self-deprecation; who is addicted to experiencing that human connection you can only find when traveling. This post, then, is dedicated to you, to the adventurers and the restless souls. Go on, plan your next adventure, be it to the far ends of the Earth or maybe just across town. I know I am planning my own right now.
And let me know what your plans are! Shoot me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org